8 Keys to Managing Arrhythmia

Whether your parent has tachycardia (rapid heartbeat), bradycardia (slow heartbeat), or fibrillation (chaotic, very rapid heartbeat), managing his arrhythmia will help him live a longer, more active life. Here are some practical ways you can help

Keep track of medications and side effects.

One of the keys to managing an arrhythmia is taking medications consistently and according to instructions. Know which drugs your parent needs to take, how often he should take them, and what he should do if he misses a dose.

If your parent lives alone, you might fill a pillbox with the medications he needs to take. These plastic containers, with seven compartments labeled for each day of the week, are available at your local pharmacy, usually near the prescription counter. You can also post a medication schedule on his refrigerator or in his bathroom so he can check off each dose as he takes it.

If your parent has trouble following the schedule, consider purchasing an automated medication dispenser. These locked devices automatically dispense pills at preprogrammed times. When it's time to take a dose, the dispenser will remind your parent with an audible alarm and flashing light. For a list of available dispensers, visit Technology for Long Term Care.

Some antiarrhythmic drugs, like amiodarone, need to be monitored very closely for serious side effects. Be sure to check in with the doctor regularly about all of your parent's medications.

Know when to call for help.

Your parent's doctor should give you instructions for when to call her office or 911, but here are some general guidelines.

Call the doctor if:

  • Your parent reports changes in heart rhythm, such as more frequent heartbeats or missed beats.
  • Your parent's resting heart rate is lower than 50 or higher than 120 beats per minute.
  • Your parent has an implantable defibrillator and receives more than one shock in a row or doesn't feel well after a shock.
  • Your parent shows any signs of heart failure.

Call 911 if:

  • Your parent suddenly loses consciousness.
  • Your parent complains of shortness of breath, chest pain, unusual sweating, dizziness, or lightheadedness.

Caffeine and Alcohol: Cut Them Out

Brush up on your CPR skills.

If your parent has an arrhythmia, cardiac arrest, also known as sudden cardiac death, is a real concern. Cardiac arrest occurs when the heart suddenly stops functioning, most often due to ventricular tachycardia, bradycardia, or fibrillation. When the heart stops pumping, blood stops circulating through the body and brain. Unless the heart starts beating again, cardiac arrest is fatal. The American Heart Association estimates that more than 300,000 Americans die every year from cardiac arrest.

Although most people in cardiac arrest need defibrillation, cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) can keep some blood flowing until emergency care arrives. If you've never taken a CPR class or it's been a while, now is the time to brush up on your skills. The American Heart Association, which sponsors CPR courses all over the country, modified its recommended CPR method in 2005. To find a class near you, visit their website.

Learn about your parent's pacemaker or defibrillator.

If your parent has a pacemaker or implantable defibrillator, it's important to understand how it works and what needs to be done to maintain it. These devices must be checked regularly to make sure they're working properly, so help your parent keep track of scheduled appointments. You'll also need to learn what your parent's heart rate should be and remind him to check his pulse -- or check it yourself -- regularly to make sure it's within the acceptable range. Your parent should always carry an identification card stating that he has one of these devices.

Cut out caffeine, alcohol, and other substances that affect heart rate.

Your parent should avoid substances that might make his arrhythmia worse:

  • Caffeine (found in coffee, tea, and many soft drinks)
  • Alcohol
  • Tobacco
  • Some over-the-counter drugs, such as cough and cold medicines or appetite suppressants
  • Cocaine and marijuana

Some prescription drugs, including beta-blockers, can also affect heart rhythm. It's a good idea to discuss all medications your parent is taking -- prescription and over-the-counter drugs and supplements -- with the doctor.

Stress and Heart Arrythmia

Manage or control stress.

Your parent's emotional and psychological state can have a very real effect on his physical health. An important aspect of managing an arrhythmia is minimizing stress and anxiety. Ironically, knowing that he has an arrhythmia can be stressful in itself. Your parent may feel anxious about his symptoms and worry about future complications.

Since not all stressful situations can be avoided, it's important for your parent to develop coping skills. You might suggest one or more of these stress-busting strategies:

• Meditation, yoga, or tai chi
• Listening to relaxing music
• Taking a walk outdoors

Control other health problems that might make an arrhythmia worse.

Any of the following conditions can cause an irregular heart rhythm to develop:

  • Coronary artery disease
  • Diabetes
  • Heart failure
  • Stroke
  • Heart valve problems
  • High cholesterol
  • Thyroid disease
  • Chronic kidney disease

If your parent already has an arrhythmia, it's crucial to properly manage conditions that might make it worse. Talk to your parent's doctor about any concerns you might have.

Encourage a heart-healthy lifestyle.

Heart disease is one of the most common causes of serious arrhythmias, so it's important for your parent to keep his heart as healthy as possible. If he doesn't have a healthy lifestyle already, your parent should make some key changes:

• Exercise regularly.
• Eat a low-fat, high-fiber diet.
• Manage blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
• Lose excess weight.
• Quit smoking and avoid secondhand smoke.

For more information, see our checklist for helping your parent prevent a heart attack.

Stephanie Trelogan

Stephanie Trelogan writes about heart disease, stroke, and depression issues that concern people caring for their aging parents. See full bio